A major area of robot research and development comes under the category of biomimetics, or biomimicry, which looks to nature for inspiration. Some robots resemble different kinds of animals. For example, Boston Dynamics' Cheetah has broken legged-robot speed records at 18mph. (It can't match a real cheetah's 70mph.) The company is well known for its pioneering development of robots that use motions based on animals to run and maneuver, such as the BigDog.
Many robots modeled after animals are developed for military and first-responder applications. They can be based on insects, like the University of California, Berkeley's OctoROACH; worms, like MIT's Inchworm; and even jellyfish, like Virginia Tech's Robojelly. Many have similar applications, and some have similar funding sources. They are designed for reconnaissance, surveillance, and the ability to go where humans can't -- sometimes in tiny spaces, sometimes in dangerous territory, and sometimes in rugged or unusual terrain.
Click on the photo below to see a slideshow of 10 of these creepy-crawly robots.
The Multi-Appendage Robotic System (MARS) from Virginia Tech's Robotics & Mechanisms Laboratory looks like a giant spider with six legs instead of eight. Fabricated out of carbon fiber and aluminum, the robot's legs are spaced axi-symmetrically around its body, which lets it walk omni-directionally. Each leg uses a proximal joint with two degrees of freedom and a distal joint with one degree of freedom for added strength and rigidity. The goal is to develop a walking gait system for negotiating terrain with variations in height. The system is based on simplified biological neuron networks, arranged in subnetworks and subsystems to support the operation of another neural network: a central pattern generator (CPG) that generates gait patterns based on feedback from all supporting systems. (Source: Virginia Polytechnic and State University)
I find the whole practice of biomimicky fascinating and these bug/worm robots really are a testament to how taking a page from nature can really get the innovation juices flowing. I noticed that most of these robot projects hail from universities. Makes sense to get student brain power in the mix. I'm wondering, though, how many of these are purely research efforts vs. potential for commercialized products.
Beth, I also noticed that most of these were from university labs and R&D. Although several of them, like Boston Dynamics's machines, are funded by the military, some others appear to be highly theoretical, like a few examples from Virginia Tech.
In college I interviewed for a job in the engineering lab with a team that was big into developing nureal networks and it was really neat to see what they were doing, creating software that an solve problems and learn. That was a few years ago and I can't even imagine all of the progress they have made.
I think this is one of those areas where the final application may not be known by the team working on the initial concept. It reminds of when I was a kid and building with Legos. My mom would ask what I was buiilding and I'd answer, "I don't know yet." It'll be neat to see how some of these robots can be used for the betterment of humanity.
Jmiller, that's what makes the field of Biomimetics so fascinating. The journey of science and engineering mixed with biology inspiration and creativity makes this technology roller coast ride a thrill to be on. I'm so inspired by these slides that I will be directing the Capstone Class at ITT
Technical Institute to view them for a possible design project.
Great slide show. I wish there was video here too. Some of these must be very elegant in action. Thanks for the slide show.
Biomimicry in design and engineering has been around forever and proves to lead to some of the most innovative and evenually mundane products. We all know about velcro. I like to imagine that the wheel was invented after observing a pill bug (armadilldiidae).
Clearly, Nature is one of the biggest inspirations for technology development, but I contend that there is also a very influential Middle-Man to inspiration– that being Science-Fiction.I say middle-man, because of course, most science-fiction took its inspiration from natural observations, as well.Point being, the title slide image for this article (Virginia Tech's MARS Spider) immediately hit me as one of the spider robots in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report starring Tom Cruise.Remember the scene after he had is eyeballs transplanted, and was being chased by spider-bot tracking drones, as he hid underwater in a bathtub-? That scene always ran chills down my spine, contemplating future tech-apps, and this article instantly gave me the same recall!
Jim, I think you've got a very important point there. I had a similar reaction to the Virginia Tech MARS robot. I think a great deal of what we're seeing in robot design, especially some of the weirder military and biomimicry types, is from the fertile imaginations of sci-fi fans, whether their inspiration comes from the old pulp days, or 50s TV serials (like I grew up on), or later movies. Now that (good quality) CGI is practically indistinguishable from reality in movies, we'll probably see even more.
Beth, I must say that you get to write about the coolest things. Whether these designs are ultimately practical or not, I think it's good for the collective knowledge base of mankind to understand how biological systems work, by attempting to imitate them. In essence humans are participating in a sort of "evolution" by developing various physical and mechanical systems which will eventually be culled out or advanced based on their ability to survive the environments they are subject to (including economic environments!). I can't wait to see what's next.
Scott, I think you bring up a good point. Although much of this biomimicry robot research is funded by the military for military applications, it's also true that the engineers are obviously learning a lot about how biological systems work. I've discovered that there's a lot of engineering research labs at American universities focused on biomimicry, and many (most?) of them receive US military funding.
What a great, great slideshow. Admittedly, I have trouble imagining some of applications for these robots. In particular, I'm wondering: Do we know what the civilian applications for the Robojelly, Ann?
Charles, I think that while the engineers are aiming robojelly at a particular function, in reality that function could be done by other developments. However, the "cool-factor" comes from the materials being used and the self refueling aspects. At the end of day, developments like this may very well be a proof of concept with a possible application and the resulting technologies can be broken apart and used elsewhere.
In some ways, designing one of these robots with a particular application in mind could put artificial limits on the innovation. It's almost like letting the student or professional engineering teams go rampant with their imagination will make for the coolest, and potentially widest-range robots--particularly those that can be applied to practical applications likely never envisioned by their creators.
It is hard to imagine some of the applications, especially the jellyfish. I don't remember reading if any of the robots have audio capabilities. Do any of the robots have both audio and visual capabilities?
gsmith, most of the military apps for these appear to be reconnaissance/surveillance, due to their ability to go where people can't, which also means crossover into first responder apps. To answer your question, I didn't see any audio capabilities mentioned for any of the robots in this slideshow. Of course, that doesn't mean that, in a given case, such capabilities aren't being considered.
Thanks, Chuck, glad you liked it. This was a lot of fun to put together. Most of the military apps for these appear to be reconnaissance/surveillance, somewhat like the smaller versions of my Military Robots slideshow, with civilian apps falling into the first responders category of going where people can't (small, dangerous spaces). Although I didn't see specific civilian apps mentioned for Robojelly on the Virginia Tech researchers' BMDL site, I suspect they might be something parallel to military surveillance, such as remote monitoring/data gathering for marine biological labs, like the one at Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Keep in mind that all military applications have Law enforcement applications as well. As economy takes a downturn crime takes an upturn. So law enforcement is put in some strange situations day in day out.
I agree Ervin0072002. It would be good to see a clear and energized path from military technology to civilian law enforcement and rescue organizations. The technology developed by the military would make police and fire operations safer and more effective -- a good civilian benefit for military investment.
I agree, ervin0072002, applications for robots can usually be extended from military uses to law enforcement and first responder apps. These are a good example, since, like the smaller versions of my Military Robots slideshow, they can go into small and/or dangerous spaces where people can't.
Science fiction is moving along. It's just that now concepts and ideas become imaginary and hard to understand (long gone are the days of submarines and spaceships as fiction). Several sci fi writers have tried to explain transcendence to another state completely. Talk about shedding our physical form and becoming an energy form. As fiction goes it's so far removed from reality not many care for it any more. Also it's harder to dazzle readers or viewers with amazing ideas with difficult to pronounce names ever since Google was invented. It is common now for writers to use catch phrases for certain tech without informing the reader about it. Nano-tech and Pico-tech is becoming a very lame standard for something amazingly powerful and small. I have personally experienced a decline in my appreciation of science fiction.
Good science fiction was never about the technology or the imagination of the author. It was about the effect that technology had on people. It was people stories in a scientifically extrapolated setting.
For example: Forbidden Planet was about our hidden emotions and what could happen if they were given the power to express themselves.
The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov) was about the consequences of automation on people. It was examined in the context of a mystery story.
Planet of the Apes examined our self destructiveness by looking at a potential aftermath (the human race cripples itself leaving room for Apes to advance).
The problem with science fiction today is that it has moved into the realm of fantasy. It is no longer about potential futures and how we fit into them, or the consequences of our choices. It is about adventure in an imaginary landscape.
This is quite an interesting slideshow, informative and entertaining as well. These creatures should certainly add to the lifetime expectancy of military scouts, which is very good. In addition, just the presence of these little creatures should serve to un-nerve some of our enemies, in addition to providing excellent surveillance, and one other option that would work with even the smallest ones is to carry an IR designator to illuminate targets that are out of humans sight. I bet nobody even thought of that concept before. That could certainly give the little fly a big sting.
One other thought, which is that surveillance is not only for law enforcement and the military, it is also used by a lot of commercial security organizations. And besides that, surveillance equipment can provide lots of entertainment, watching animals in the wild without them having any clue that we are looking at them. At last we can see for ourselves: "does a bear ---- in the woods?"
William, I think the nature observation app you mention is a good one, even if you meant it as a joke. Although wild animals would definitely notice little machines moving around they would, hopefully, not be attracted to them since they don't smell like food. OTOH, cats large and small like to play with creeping and crawling things, so the smaller robots probably shouldn't be used where the local wildlife includes large cats.
Ann, only the part about the bear in the woods was intended to be funny. On the other hand, small robotic spies should allow for the study of different species in much closer detail than otherwise convenient, or even possible. And that would indeed probably be done with equipment similar to what private snoops would use.
Ann, You've definitely found a very unique set of robotic applications. Just shows how creativity is possible with the availability of inexpensive control solutions, software and development kits that wouldn't have been available just a few years ago.
Thanks, Al. A couple of commenters mentioned the possibility that some of these may have been designed without a specific goal in mind. AFAIK from my research, every robot shown here was purposefully designed to do what it does. That holds for every robot I've written about in DN. In some cases, the goal was more mechanical, such as "we were trying to see how to make a robot climb stairs", or "we wanted to see what a three-legged robot could do." Most of the time, the goals seem to be more specific and targeted toward applications that would be helpful to the military, since that's where most of the funding comes from.
Ann—fascinating article.I think it's a little scary what these things can do.I certainly understand the need to go where human health and safety would be compromised but I'm a little nervous relative to the more clandestine possibilities.Remember the movie "Minority Report" and the "bots" used to search for the hero (Tom Cruise)?He's lying there in the tub, under water, to avoid these pesky little devices that will certainly cause his capture and possible death.(OK so I'm paranoid!)The mechanical aspects represent just how far engineering has come and how successful y we have mastered emulating "moving things".I am also fascinated that programming can make these things do what is needed.
bobjengr, Philip K. Dick is one of my favorite science fiction authors, so I guess I'm kind of paranoid, too. Maybe I read and watch too much sci-fi. Anyway, yes I remember Minority Report. There's an awful lot of new tech in that movie. Those 'bots didn't scare me nearly as much as the talking ads. But I know what you mean, and I'm actually conflicted about the 'bots in this slideshow. I don't much like bugs and worms in real life (although I do like snakes) but these machines are fascinating. They attract me because of their amazing design, but they repel me because, well, they're crawly!
The first scary robots that I recall are in the book "Farenhite 451", which was about some sort of oppressive government, as I recall. Those robots shot poeple with morphine to capture them. And the robots were quite small, it seems.
The good news, at least so far, is that those who wish to attack us have not yet mastered the technology of robotics, except for remote controlled detonators.
So we now see that for good or bad, the development of various small "robotic things" is changing the world, if we want it or not.
William, the first scary robot I remember was Gort, in the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. I was pretty small, so he was pretty scary. Funny, I don't remember the robots in Fahrenheit 451 as scary. That book is about an oppressive government that outlawed books, among other things, and burned them publicly, just like Savonarola did in Italy during the Renaissance.
Rob, you're right of course about the friendly robots in movies. Robby was in Forbidden Planet, that amazing 50s sci-fi movie gem. But he tends to get eclipsed in my memory by all the scary ones. It does seem like robots have gotten mostly scary in movies again.
Yes, and I suppose Data in the later Star Trek series would also qualify as a friendly robot. But when it comes down to it, I agree with you that robots are generally worrisome. I think of the robot in Aliens and HAL in 2001 (if you can consider HAL as a robot) as particularly scary
Good point about Data, although he's more of an android, which is generally classed somewhat differently in sci-fi. And yes, HAL is a great example--perhaps one of the scariest, partly because he has no separate discernible body and partly because he basically is the ship, and therefore extremely powerful.
I think you're right about HAL being the scariest. Maybe it's that insinuating, almost snarly, whiny voice combined with his powers of control. I think a big factor is also his invisibility, in the sense of a lack of a discrete separate body.
Well described, Ann. When I first saw the movie HAL it was very creepy. On subsequent viewing, HAL becomes a bit comical. I'm sure you're aware the initials in HAL are IBM one letter earlier. I always thought that was very clever.
My fovorite movie was Dark Star in which they sent "Thermostellar Triggering Devices" to "unstable planets" to "eliminate" them (the planets).
One of the "Thermostellar Triggering Devices" got stuck in the bomb bay and guy inside the ship was carrying on a conversation with the bomb to try to get it to disarm itself. It kept refusing, saying that it absolutely was not stuck to the ship.
Wikipedia says Dark Star came out in 1974. It's really cheesey (is that a word) but good if you don't take it seriously; excapt for it predicting the future may be. I also like Brazil, one of the best films of all time!! Unfortunately Brazil is happening to us now. Both of these should be required viewing by ALL engineering students.
Ann, I think that they were called hounds, or dogs, or something like that. They chased people who ran, and sedated them with a morphine injection. They were not a large part of the story. If I can find that book again I will attempt to refresh my recollection of that part. But it was a long time ago that I read it, when it was current.